The Man Who Invented

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Rogers once remarked that Florida would still be known mainly for turpentine rather than for its sunshine resorts if it hadn’t been for Carl Graham Fisher, a brisk little entrepreneur and promoter from Indianapolis. Fisher was the creator of Miami Beach, the focal point of Florida’s boom as a popular winter-vacation resort in the 1920’s, where he is hailed in an inscription on a monument to his memory as a pioneer who “carved a great city out of a jungle.”

Miami Beach, which now has more high-rise hotels than any other seaside resort in the world, was indeed a jungle of swamps and thickly tangled mangrove forests when Fisher and his young wife, Jane, first saw it in 1912. “Mosquitoes blackened our white clothing,” Jane wrote later in her biography of Fisher, Fabulous Hoosier . “What on earth could Carl possibly see in such a place, I wondered crossly as I picked my way through the morass in my white shoes. … I refused to find any charm in this deserted strip of ugly land rimmed with a sandy beach. But Carl was like a man seeing visions. He had pulled a stick and peeled it on our way through the swamp, and when we reached the clean sand he drew upon it a plan of streets and square designs that represented buildings. That damp sand on which he drew is now Lincoln Road.”

Jane recalled Fisher’s exclaiming: “Look, honey, I’m going to build a city here! A city like magic, like romantic places you read and dream about, but never see.”

Over the next few years Fisher and a few co-developers transformed the narrow stretch of island between the Atlantic Ocean and Biscayne Bay at a staggering cost, sometimes reaching fifty thousand dollars a day, during a long period before any return came back from the investment. Dredging sand from the bay bottom, Fisher filled in the laboriously cleared swamps and made handsome residential islands along the bay shore, built streets, five hotels, parks, golf courses, yacht basins, and polo fields, and imported teams of titled British polo players. He launched nationwide publicity campaigns, flooding newspaper offices with glossy photos of bathing beauties posing on the sands of Miami Beach, and awakened people in the chilly Northeast and Midwest to the attractions of the Florida climate.

Arestless promoter, Fisher always had several irons in the fire. Before he visualized Miami Beach, he had built the Indianapolis Speedway and had conceived the plan for the Lincoln Highway, the first transcontinental automobile road in the United States, between New York and San Francisco. Later, at the same time that he was creating Miami Beach, Fisher came up with the idea for the Dixie Highway. In 1915 he led a cavalcade of fifteen cars over that north-south route, starting from Indianapolis and ending up in Miami at the newly built Collins Bridge, which he had helped to finance in order to bring prospective land buyers across Biscayne Bay to Miami Beach. This first bridge from the mainland to the beach was the longest wooden bridge in the world at the time, extending two and a half miles. The opening of the Dixie Highway, as Fisher had no doubt surmised, was a strong spur to the wild Florida real-estate boom of the 1920’s.

The boom drew a variety of colorful characters, but none of them was more spectacular than Carl Fisher, who gambled millions of dollars on the future of Florida long before the boom started. He was born in Greensburg, Indiana, in 1874 with 50 per cent vision, a condition that he did not discover until he visited an oculist for the first time at the age of thirty-one. In his youth, despite his semiblindness, he was a bicycle and automobile racer and a cross-country balloonist. On the Harlem dirt track in Chicago in 1904 he drove one of the early racing cars to a world record for two miles, 2:02 minutes. As an advertising stunt when he was selling bicycles, he rode a bike across a tightrope stretched between the roofs of two high buildings in downtown Indianapolis. Later, when he was one of the city’s first automobile drivers and the manager of the local Stoddard-Dayton car agency, he exploited his cars by riding in one of them as it drifted through the sky above the business district, hanging from a huge red balloon.